The catastrophes roiling “Jayson With a Y” have such devastating authenticity that auds may want to avert their eyes out of respect for the family onstage. But painful as it is, we should keep looking. Darci Picoult’s play feels absolutely real, not only because the language and perfs seem so natural, but also because actions never lead to tidy resolutions. As they do in life, emotions and morals become tangled as impossible situations demand choices. And since the consequences of those choices are too complex to be either right or wrong, we must decide for ourselves how to feel about the thundering heartbreak we’ve observed.
It would be reductive to define the play by its most prominent plotline, in which a woman’s sudden death leaves her sisters and their husbands to care for Jayson (Miles Purinton), her teenage son who has Asperger syndrome. The characters’ struggle over what to do with this difficult boy — whether to place him in an institution or learn to care for him on their own — certainly drives the action, but it also exposes subtler conflicts and bonds. That richness helps this tiny production (produced in the New Group’s low-budget “naked” series) suggest an entire history of family dynamics.
Steered by director Sheryl Kaller, these relationships have the unvarnished feel of documentary. Most scenes occur in kitchens or bedrooms, and thesps perform household rituals even as they cope with both death and a child whose condition makes him unresponsive, hysterical and occasionally violent.
Their actions can be so small they become devastating, as when Joe (Kevin Geer) and his pregnant wife, Kyle (Marin Hinkle), fight about Jayson while Kyle also tries to disentangle the cord on her iPod headphones. Inconsequential things never stop happening, even when crisis makes it seem they should.
The cast builds on its physical life by capturing the rhythm of Picoult’s dialogue. Her script has the musical cadence of everyday speech, brimming with pauses, “ums” and half-finished sentences.
Maryann Plunkett and Daniel Oreskes — playing Lynette and Mike, a couple with plans to move to France until guilt about Jayson arises — particularly master the playwright’s approach. Like a couple that’s been together forever, they communicate mostly with a language of noises and facial expressions that lie beneath their words. Even as the strain begins driving them apart, we still see how intimately they know each other.
Yet while it maps the adults’ evolutions with remarkable depth, the production’s most impressive achievement may be in affording the same nuance to Jayson himself. Picoult refuses to romanticize him, making him as hostile as he is sympathetic. High school sophomore Purinton rises to the writing by mastering the surface features of Asperger syndrome (the blank stare, the hands that rarely stop moving) while also communicating Jayson’s fear and grief as his life implodes.
By letting us know its characters so well, “Jayson With a Y” prepares us to feel the weight of Picoult’s graceful conclusion. The play may end, but the story clearly hasn’t. And it’s easy to carry its irresolvable emotions well beyond the theater’s walls.